Entering the From Slavery To Freedom exhibit at Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center, one first sees a display featuring fine metal work and examples of intricate colored textile work made by African artisans.
That rustic imagery is instantly shattered by the next item on display: an iron neck collar affixed with four foot-long hooks. It dates to early 19th century Ghana, and was used when transporting particularly “rambunctious” slaves to the ships waiting to transport them to a life of servitude across the Atlantic.
Perhaps more disturbing is a small set of iron leg shackles used on the ships—a partial reproduction of which visitors walk through next. They were designed for children and, because children had the run of such ships, taking water and food to the adult slaves bellow decks, the shackles had metal balls inside to alert men to their presence—the design was based on the traditional rattles African mothers used to calm their babies.
But the exhibit, explains Sam Black, museum director of African-American programs, is about the Pittsburgh area’s place in both slavery and anti-slavery history.
“Long before the steel industry, Pittsburgh was a huge textile center, mills dotted the rivers and the city imported thousands of tons of cotton,” he said. “There is also a connection to tobacco. The Wegman Company, which invented the process for making chewing tobacco, was here. So a lot of Pittsburgh wealth was the product of slave labor in the South.”
But it was also a destination for slaves fleeing the South seeking freedom. As the exhibit moves from examples of plantation life and its cash crops to the act of fleeing slavery, it features numerous botanical prints on loan from the Hunt Institute.
“When you make the decision to run away, there are a lot of things to consider; do I go alone, what do I take with me, and since I have to live off the land, what is safe to eat,” said Black, pointing to one of the botanical prints. “That’s what wild lettuce looks like. Would you know that?”
With the Pennsylvania’s Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780 ostensibly outlawing slavery for Blacks born afterwards, Pittsburgh became a destination for those seeking freedom, and a hub for devout abolitionists.
This dual nature of the region—wealth built on southern salve labor and fervent anti-slavery activity—is exemplified by Charles Avery.
“He made his fortune in textiles, but as an abolitionist and philanthropist, he helped many to freedom,” said Black. “He built churches, established Avery College and set up scholarship at Oberlin College, all for Blacks.”
The dichotomy is further exemplified by the contrast between Pittsburgher Samuel R. Delaney, who became the highest ranking Black officer in the Civil War, and Slave owners with names like O’Hara and Schenley, some of whom despite the Act of 1780, held slaves as late as 1857 by designating them as “indentured servants.”
“We know this thanks to remarkable discovery of the Freedom, Manumission and Indenture papers at the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds office about 10 years ago,” said Black. “They are one of the keys to the exhibit and an invaluable resource.”
In addition to the visual displays, the exhibit features period music, a statue of Delaney reading a speech, read by local actor Aki Durham, there is an interactive, touch-screen display highlighting the city’s major stops on the Underground Railroad; John B. Vashon’s barbershop, the LeMoyne House, and the Monongahela House Hotel.
The latter enables visitors to reenact the story of Arkansas slave owner named John Drennen who was traveling through Pittsburgh in 1850 with his wife and their young slave and stayed at the hotel.
“They went to dinner and locked the girl in the room, having no idea the entire staff were abolitionists,” said Black. “The took the transom window from above the door, reached down and pulled her out, put the window back and snuck her out to freedom.”
The exhibit continues through, the Great Migration, which saw thousands of former slaves coming to Pittsburgh to work in the steel mills, through the Civil Rights struggle—featuring prominent figures like Byrd Brown and Nate Smith. It ends with a wall of photos showing recent African immigrants, many from nations that once supplied slaves. Some of these are photographer and artist Saihou Njie, attorney Ustace Uku and Chester Engineers President and CEO Robert Agbede. That’s the point of the exhibit, Black said, that Pittsburgh is a destination for freedom, then and now.
Asked what part of the exhibit touches him, Black paused.
“The gourd fiddle, from the Smithsonian. Made by a slave in the 1850s, it shows that even amid this evil of slavery, there was life, there was art, there was music,” he said.
The exhibit, presented by BNY Mellon and funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Education and Cultural Program and co-sponsored by PPG Industries Foundation, the University of Pittsburgh, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and The Double Eagle Foundation, will be adding additional interactive displays for African American History Month and remain on display for at least 10 years.
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